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Optometrists: What They Do and When to See One

Optometrists are eye care professionals who diagnose and treat various vision problems. An optometrist can test for vision changes, prescribe corrective lenses and handle other eye-related treatments, but they cannot perform major eye surgeries.

optometrist

Unlike ophthalmologists, optometrists are not medical doctors, and their scope of practice is limited to managing certain eye abnormalities and conditions.

Instead of gaining a medical degree that ophthalmologists achieve, optometrists receive a doctor of optometry after four years of educational training in certified schools. Even without a medical background, optometrists can identify ocular manifestations of systemic diseases and refer appropriately. For instance, if your eye problem stems from diabetes, an optometrist will refer you to an endocrinologist for holistic management.

If you require highly specialized care, an optometrist can refer you to another eye care specialist, such as an ophthalmic oncologist.

Education and Training

You need to complete about eight years of education and training to become an optometrist. First you must complete the bulk of a three- or four-year bachelor’s degree program, at a minimum, to get accepted into an optometry school. The selection process for admission is competitive, which means you must demonstrate exemplary academic performance to be accepted.

Before you join one of the 23 accredited schools of optometry in the United States, you should pass an Optometry Admission Test administered by the Association of Schools and College of Optometry. The test is a multiple-choice paper that evaluates your basic understanding of Physics, Quantitative Reasoning, Natural Science and Reading Comprehension.

Trainees complete four years of education to receive a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree, which allows them to practice. Students typically the first two years of optometry school in classrooms. They use the third and fourth years for clinical work.

After graduating with an OD degree, students can join a residency program and specialize in any optometry subspecialty, including sports vision, neuro-optometry and low vision therapy.

What Does an Optometrist Do?

The four-year intensive training equips optometrists to offer eye and vision care in various capacities. For instance, an optometrist can perform eye tests, including comprehensive eye examination, and diagnose various ocular conditions.

After making a diagnosis, an optometrist will prescribe and administer treatment. For example, suppose you are diagnosed with a refractive error such as farsightedness or astigmatism. An optometrist can prescribe and fit you the corrective lenses in case an optician is not available.  

When patients present with ocular manifestations of eye disease, optometrists usually identify and refer them to appropriate healthcare professionals. Often, optometrists act as the link for accessing specialist eye treatment for patients seeking vision care.

Besides clinical practice, an optometrist can supervise others training to offer eye care services: opticians, trainee doctors of optometry and medical students.

What Conditions Do Optometrists Treat?

Doctors of Optometry treat nearly all eye conditions in the general population. The most common vision abnormalities managed by optometrists include:

  • Refractive errors
  • Cataracts
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Glaucoma

Refractive Errors

Optometrists diagnose and treat all eye conditions resulting from improper refraction and light focusing on the retina. These refractive disorders include nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism, and presbyopia. Optometrists usually prescribe and dispense corrective lenses which treat these refractive errors.

Cataracts

Cataracts ares one of the leading causes of vision loss in the United States. Regular eye exams help your optometrist detect the lens’ clouding early and initiate treatment. In mild cases, increasing eye prescription or anti-glare coatings can be beneficial. But surgery is the best solution.

Diabetic Retinopathy

This chronic complication of diabetes mellitus is responsible for most cases of blindness in the United States. Early identification of diabetic retinopathy by an optometrist is essential in preventing the progression of the defect.

Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Along with other changes in your body, aging also takes a toll on vision quality. Destruction of the macular makes it difficult to read, drive or perform other daily tasks. Optometrists can assist by offering low vision rehabilitation therapy to enable the subject to cope effectively.

Glaucoma

Blurry vision associated with eye pain, severe headache and vomiting are signs of increased intraocular pressure that can damage the optic nerve, a condition referred to as glaucoma. Optometrists offer fundamental guidance on approaches to preventing this vision-threatening disease. For instance, they can recommend wearing UV-coated sunglasses and other strategies designed to limit eye injury.

Reasons to See an Optometrist

Visiting an eye-care professional regularly is essential to maintain optimal vision and eye health. Although most people visit optometrists only when they notice vision issues, there are other reasons to do so. Such as:

  • Getting a comprehensive eye exam. It can uncover asymptomatic ocular and systemic conditions. In the early phases of development, most eye disorders such as glaucoma and retinopathy are usually symptomless. If these sight-threatening conditions are discovered, and appropriate treatment is initiated in the primary stages of their development, your eyesight can be saved. 
  • Boosting the performance of children in school. The AAO recommends that children have the first eye exam at around age 4, just before starting school since learning is mainly visual in this age group. Children might not recognize their vision deficits, and poor performance in school can be the only indicator of eye problems.
  • Keeping your prescription updated. If you are using corrective lenses, it is important to visit your optometrist at least annually to ensure your prescription is up to date. Eye strain and headache are potential signs of using wrong prescriptions.

Ophthalmologist vs. Optometrist

Although both optometrists and ophthalmologists are members of the eye care team, these specialists differ in multiple aspects. First, an ophthalmologist has a medical background and takes about 12-13 years to complete professional training, while an optometrist’s training takes about eight years.

Regarding the scope of practice, an ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat all eye problems while an optometrist is licensed to manage only particular conditions.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, optometrists earn an average of $118 050 a year, while ophthalmologists’ average annual salary is about $203,450.

How to Find an Optometrist Near You

To find a certified optometrist near you, visit the American Optometric Association website and enter the search query in the respective fields.

FAQs

Is an optometrist a doctor?

Optometrists do not have a medical degree like ophthalmologists, but they have a doctor of optometry degree. Therefore, optometrists are not licensed to practice as medical doctors.

What do optometrists treat?

Optometrists treat several eye conditions including refractive errors, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. For cases requiring specialist advice, optometrists usually refer subjects to ophthalmologists.

References

  1. Eye and Vision Care Professionals and Education. NCBI.

  2. The Role of Optometry In Vision 2020. Community Eye Health Journal. October 01, 2002.

  3. Refractive error study in children: results from La Florida, Chile. American Journal of Ophthalmology. April 2000.

  4. Find a Doctor of Optometry. American Optometric Association.

Last Updated February 26, 2022

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